Monday, 16 January 2012

In the Lebanon: Loving Beirut (but not the book I’m afraid…)

Lebanon, and its capital city Beirut, has long been a source of fascination for me. As a young child growing up in the UK the news stories of this particular war torn country, for some reason made an impact which has always stuck with me. I was especially curious on this journey to read about the real experiences of people actually living in Beirut – a city that has gained an almost mythical image of anarchy and chaos in the West: people still refer disparagingly to local run-down or crime-ridden areas by saying “it’s like Beirut”…

As such I really wanted to like “Beirut: I Love You,”, the next book on my journey. But I’m afraid I didn’t…..and I did try!

It is not that the book is all that badly written, and there ARE some interesting insights into life in Beirut, but I just could not get on with the narrator; who comes across - in my opinion – rather too much like a self-absorbed and rather unsympathetic teenager.

Perhaps it is just me and for fairness I shall cover this book via the publisher copy on the book:

“This is the story of Zena, a young woman who has fallen under the spell of a city that threatens to engulf her in war, grief and love affairs. In the streets armed militias carve out their territories, while ragged construction workers rebuild the city. Refugees sleep five to a bed as bleach-blondes wend their way to the next drug-fuelled supernightclub. At any moment, the bombs will start falling. Meanwhile, Zena and her best friend Maya must try to make sense of their lives amidst the craziness, and negotiate the city's many obsessions including cosmetic surgery, husband hunting and Kalashnikovs. As honest as it is forgiving, this artist's memoir pits love and art against the ever-present threat of war.”

Other readers have seemed to like it, so I won’t discourage you from giving it a try. Just wasn’t my cup of tea I’m afraid…

And so I make my way from war-torn Beirut to another war-torn area – Gaza in the Gaza Strip area of Palestine. Whilst only 175 miles away, the regional issues of politics, war and terrorism make this one of my most difficult and frustrating trips…

The Gaza Strip has three crossing points; two are designed for civilian entry and exit. The first, ‘Erez’, is controlled by Israel and is under near-total lockdown. The other, ‘Rafah’, borders with Egypt and is essentially under Egyptian control.

The Rafah Border Crossing (‘Rafah’) is open at least 5 days per week and is the size of a small airport terminal. On each operating day, Palestinians and internationals attempt to enter and exit the Strip. Egypt caps how many entrances take place per day at around 500-700.

For Palestinians, entry and exit via Rafah is renowned as one of the most cumbersome and bureaucratically difficult crossing points in the world. Rafah also represents an often difficult crossing for internationals too, as I soon find out….

The first part of my journey is straightforward enough: I fly Egyptair from Beirut to Cairo in just one and a half hours for $206. Having already done my research on this journey I have realised that I need a pretext to enter Gaza. As the situation stands, you cannot simply visit Gaza for ‘tourism’. My cover for travelling is as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) to help document human rights abuses. Please note: whatever the purpose of visiting, you need a signed letter from a notable Gaza-based organisation (like ISM) to personally invite you for a set period of time. This organisation is sometimes referred to as your ‘host’..

You then, via email, submit your personal details, the dates of your planned visit and the letter of invitation from your host to the Egyptian embassy in London. Within 2–3 weeks you will receive a permission letter from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry; this permission letter permits you to use the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing..

On arriving at the airport I purchase an Egypt entry visa (£10) in order to pass through the passport control stations, then take a taxi from Cairo’s airport to the centre of Cairo (for about £20). .

After a night’s rest in Cairo (cheap hotels start at around £10 per night) I take a taxi from Cairo to the Rafah crossing - this long-distance journey usually takes 6 hours so I hire a private driver, costing £50 (I use one recommended by my hotel). My driver, like many others, starts the journey early - at just after 3am - to arrive at Rafah as the crossing opens at 9am (stopping two-thirds of the way through the journey to have breakfast at a cafe-restaurant). .

On arriving at Rafah, I show my passport, the Egyptian permission letter and the Gazan-based organisation invitation letter to the guard at the gate. I wait for about 40 minutes while they authenticate my documents, and then I am ushered through the crossing through the gates..

I follow the flow of pedestrians and enter the Egyptian side’s Rafah terminal building. I go to the Passport Control desk and get a non-Egyptian entry form, fill it in and get it stamped (for about £10) then take the entry form, passport and two (permission and invitation) letters back to the Passport Control desk. My details are checked once again. Then after an hour my name is shouted out by a Passport Control agent. .

I am then given back my passport stamped with an Egypt exit stamp, I proceed through the terminal building, passing through another Egyptian guard desk; my passport is checked for an exit stamp and a guard reads my permission and invitation letters. I then need to pay £15 before I the Egyptian side’s terminal for an exit ticket..

Again following the flow of pedestrians, I purchase a coach ticket (£5), and board the coach, which takes me through to the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing. .

I then enter the Palestinian side’s terminal building and present my passport and two letters to an officer at one of the passport control booths. .

I sit down with security officers who ask me to be seated while they ask few questions on the purpose of my visit, the location of my Gaza accommodation and which Gazan will kindly act as my trip ‘guide’ person. It takes about 30 minutes to satisfactorily verify my story; the officers place a telephone call to my guide to validate my story and alert him of my arrival and invite them to the terminal (my ‘guide’ is someone I previously organised to act as such from the host organisation that ‘invited’ me to Gaza). On receiving the telephone call, my guide enters the terminal building and also answers a few questions..

We both then complete a form about my visit, and I also fill in an exit registration form, informing the authorities of the date on which they should expect to receieve me at the border to exit into Egypt. On the forms’ completion I then continue through the terminal. .

I have now successfully entered Gaza Strip!.

I then take a private taxi onwards to my destination in Gaza, courtesy of Joe Sacco, and a fascinating graphic novel, “Palestine,” exploring the first Intifada in Palestine in the early 1990s…

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